January 2011

New Cuba Travel Regulations Published in Federal Register Today

Compared to the nearly six months it took to publish regulations easing family travel and remittance restrictions in 2009, today's publication of the new Cuba travel and remittance rules announced on January 14th was clean and efficient.  The administration is to be commended on finally using the rip-the-bandaid-off approach; announcing a policy without implementing it leads to all kinds of meddling and second-guessing by outsiders.  Which, actually, is exactly what appeared to happen when the existence of these draft regulations leaked out last August.  When the regulations didn't come during the August recess, nor the October recess, nor even the end of year/holiday recess, many believed they'd been nixed.   And with the fabled regulations went any hope that the Obama administration was capable of formulating and implementing a more coherent, results-oriented, and more U.S.-interests based Cuba policy than the one it inherited.

By those measures, the administration truly made progress this month on one of the most neglected but promising foreign policy issues on its plate.  A the same time, I'd be lying if I didn't insist there's still ample room for improvement.  One hopes this wasn't just a "get-this-thing-off-my-plate" move, but rather the unjamming of whatever logjam there was on an issue that offers this administration such outsized gain at so little risk.

On coherence: With the new rules, and the announcement that preceded them, the administration has been at pains to state clearly that it views these new measures as a continuation of the objective that brought us the 2009 family travel and remittance reforms (which candidate Obama promised during his presidential campaign).  From today's Federal Register:

"In a statement issued on January 14, 2011, the President announced 
a series of changes to ease the restrictions on travel to and from Cuba 
as part of an initiative to support the Cuban people's desire to freely 
determine their country's future by, among other things, supporting 
licensed travel and intensifying people-to-people exchanges. This 
announcement builds on the President's April 13, 2009 initiative to 
promote greater contact between separated family members in the United 
States and Cuba."

Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

All the Cuba news right now seems to be on the 'communication' front.  This month's announcement from the Obama administration that it plans to encourage "people to people" contacts with and travel to Cuba came just before Cuban authorities announced suspension of mail service to the United States.  Ironic timing, but the two issues aren't otherwise connected.  Though no one knows for sure, it would seem that  the mail bomb packages from Yemen led to new restrictions and uncertainties- and heaps of mail returned to Cuba's postal authorities - got to be a financial burden.  It's not clear why the third party shippers would return Cuban-origin mail, but the U.S. says it has not restricted Cuban-origin mail specifically.  It's ironic, since the US and Cuba restarted mail talks nearly a year and a half ago, in hopes of restarting direct mail service between the two countries.  This problem might not have cropped up had they been able to come to agreement.  Now they can't even make indirect mail service work.   Is it too much to hope that this suspension gives U.S. and Cuban authorities something to work toward for this summer's migration talks (since there's been no visible progress on that front)? 

Meanwhile, an underwater broadband cable is making its way from Venezuela, though it's unclear at this point just how it may or may not change Cubans' digital lives.  The Guardian reports that the priority will be to improve the incredibly slow satellite connection shared by government officials, academics, researchers, certain businesses and foreign hotels and other companies.  Improving the efficiency of all of these priority sectors will be important to the success of the current economic restructuring underway on the island.  But of course, questions are bound to be asked about how to increase access to the internet for the broader population.  Rome wasn't built - or wired - in a day, but critics will nonetheless accuse the government of blocking average citizens' access.  It would be nice to see internet cafes and public access points pop up and address the pent up demand.  And frankly, many private businesses the government hopes can fill the income and employment gap it no longer wants to fill could benefit from use of the internet - particularly those that will prosper if they can better advertise to foreign clientele, like casa particulares and paladars.

And at a conference organized by the Center for International Policy today, Professor Phil Brenner, one of several panelists speaking about the Obama administration announcement on travel and on other issues ripe for progress on the Cuba policy front, made an interesting point about the small Cuban businesses and the Obama administration policy.  Now that university students will no longer be practically incapable of studying in Cuba (Brenner says about 300 American students studied in Cuba last year, as opposed to some 10,000 six years ago before government regulations snuffed out most of the exchanges), they will be among the most likely Americans to frequent - and thus bolster - Cuban businesses like casas particulares and paladar restaurants.  It's not as big an impact as, say, hundreds of thousands of Americans would have on these fledging businesses, but it's yet another reason why increasing academic exchanges is just plain good policy.  I hope that's not what Senator Bob Menendez meant when he said he hoped to "limit the impact" of the administration's new policy.

Victory of People to People Travel Depends on OFAC Implementation

Adam Szubin, Director of OFAC

Adam Szubin, Director of OFAC



Unquestionably, the White House announcement on January 14 of reforms in policy affecting purposeful travel to Cuba is an important step forward.

The Obama Administration overcame resistance from a powerful minority of hard line Cuban Americans and their Congressional allies in Florida and New Jersey who oppose even the general license for family travel authorized in 2009 and will object to every opening, no matter how timid or bold. 

Senator Marco Rubio, a Tea Party linked freshman from Florida, revealed his extremism:

"I strongly oppose any new changes that weaken U.S. policy towards Cuba. I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes."

He was effectively offset by Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee


“I warmly applaud the President’s decision to allow more Americans to travel to Cuba.  These measures, expanding people-to-people relations between the United States and Cuba and allowing Americans to send funds to Cubans for private economic activity, open the way for the good will of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future.  This is an important step.  If governments cannot solve the problems between them, at least they should get out of the way and let citizens work toward finding solutions.

“Cuba remains, regrettably, the only country in the world that the United States government does not allow its citizens to travel to freely.  I intend to continue pushing legislation, such as I sponsored in the last Congress, that will allow free travel to Cuba.  After 50 years of embargo against Cuba and government prohibitions on contact, it’s time to try something different.”

The challenge facing the Obama Administration is to insure that its goals for “religious, cultural and educational travel” are faithfully implemented by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the Treasury Department.

“Reaching out to the Cuban people” and fostering “people to people contact” require fully enabling the energy and spirit of the American people without bureaucratic obstacles in either country.

The devil, as always, is in the details.  (See analysis of executive order here.)

The White House has begun to respond to substantial social and economic changes underway in Cuba.  However for domestic political purposes it unnecessarily linked liberalized travel to maintaining the internationally despised trade embargo.  Moreover the statement justified reform in terms of promoting “independence from Cuban authorities”, an objective that would create suspicion in any host government.

Obama's New Cuba Travel Rules: This One's Not Just for Miami

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dishevld's photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/98194978@N00/5332118507/sizes/o/in/photostream/Just how significant are the new rules announced by the Obama administration to expand purposeful travel and economic assistance to Cuba?  Do they signal a renewed “thaw” in bilateral relations, coming as they did just after diplomatic reports that an American USAID subcontractor detained in Cuba more than a year ago may soon get to go home?  Are they a “response” from the Obama administration to the Raul Castro government’s recent economic reforms and release of dozens of political prisoners?  Are they a far and weakened cry from what should have been a full and confident overhaul of the poster child for dumb U.S. policies that cost us far more in treasure and credibility than they’ve ever achieved?  Or are they this administration’s return to its pledge early on to move Cuba policy out of the past and into the future?   The correct answer may be in the eye of the beholder. 

In comparison with the Clinton administration’s initiatives of more than a decade ago, these new rules don’t break a lot of new ground.  But they do break some, in giving general licenses to religious and credit-earning academic travel, and in authorizing other U.S. airports to host licensed flights to Cuba.  What’s so frustrating is this administration could have come in and swept away much of the deadwood Cuba policy it inherited – and earned valuable points abroad – but instead it dragged its feet and allowed itself to be bullied for two years.

By the same token, no matter how little risk Cuba policy reforms posed juxtaposed by economic and foreign policy benefits for the U.S., the White House has been engulfed in one crisis or political battle of far greater proportions after another, including inheriting the worst financial crisis the nation has faced in decades, fighting a surprisingly protracted battle over its signature goal, healthcare reform, getting in deeper in Afghanistan, fighting Congress over stimulus spending and tax policy and suffering a crushing defeat at the polls in November.  And that’s just the really big stuff.  So in that context, bold and sensible policy reforms in a non-crisis policy arena like Cuba understandably got sidelined, or worse (and not so understandably), subjected to questionable political litmus tests. 

When reports first surfaced last summer that new rules were in the offing, Hard-line darlings Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Albio Sires (both Democrats, and dedicated fundraisers for their party) reported their advice to the White House – Cuba policy reforms would hurt the Democrats’ chances in the November election.  When the rules didn’t come, many assumed the White House had bought that argument, even though several Florida Democrats who towed a hard line on Cuba still fell to the Republican/anti-incumbent tide that swept the rest of the political map.

BREAKING: Obama Administration Announces Expanded Travel to Cuba

Now this is what "Reaching out to the Cuban people" really means.

While we don't have the fine print (regulations) in hand for another couple weeks, today the Obama administration announced it will issue new regulations to expand licensable travel to Cuba.  People to people educational and cultural licenses, established under President Clinton and eliminated by President Bush, will be restored, and credit-earning academic and religious travelers, now subject to pre-trip application and approval processes, will be able to travel on general licenses, as do Cuban American travelers today.  The regulations will also allow any international U.S. airport with the necessary facilities to host licensed charter services to and from Cuba, and authorize any American to send remittances for humanitarian and economic projects to non-family Cubans (except for high level Cuban government and Communist Party officials, as is the case for currently allowable family remittances).

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Kerry offered high praise, which he said would "open the way for the good will of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future."  He went on to say he will continue to push for a full repeal of all travel restrictions for all Americans. (Kerry's statement, which I received in an email, will be available here shortly)

Mixed Messages from Biannual Migration Talks

Roberta Jacobson photo Mexico Institute

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson led the US delegation to Havana


A Reuters' story from Havana suggests a solution is in sight for the Alan Gross case. 

  The senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said the Cuban government now expected Gross to be charged and tried. The official, who spoke following migration talks on Wednesday in Havana between U.S. and Cuban delegations, did not give a time frame.
"I am cautiously optimistic because of things we hear that that would be the case," the official said when asked if Gross would be released and sent home after being tried, adding that Cuban officials had made "encouraging noises."  ....

A Western diplomat in Havana said on Thursday Gross would likely plead guilty at a trial in the next few weeks and then be sent back to the United States....
Roberta Jacobson, the second most senior U.S. diplomat for Latin America, visited Gross in jail on Thursday during her trip to Cuba for the migration talks.

Unfortunately the US delegation insisted on mixing the sweet apples of bilateral negotiation with the bitter lemons of interference in domestic politics.

But Cuba called Jacobson's meeting with opposition leaders an "open provocation" and evidence Washington still aimed to subvert the revolutionary government that took power in 1959.
"Before the migration talks, the Foreign Ministry made clear to the U.S. officials its rejection of any attempt to use the official visit to Cuba to carry out disrespectful or offensive activities against our country," the ministry said in a statement. 

Hopefully, but another shadow play with each side reassuring its hard liners that it has not been seduced by the temptation of normal discourse.

U.S.-Cuba Talks Conclude With a Glimmer of Hope for Alan Gross?

The fourth round of U.S.-Cuban migration talks wrapped up in Havana this week, with just two newsworthy tidbits.  The Cuban government allowed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to visit with the American USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, who has been detained in Cuba for more than one year now without charges, and, Jacobson and the American delegation visited with Cuban dissidents, in spite of the Cuban government's request that they not do so.  The latter evoked an angry response from Cuba's foreign ministry, which described the U.S. delegation's visit as a "flagrant violation of the international norms and principles" under which the two countries should operate (my translation below):

"This act confirms once again that there's no change in the U.S. policy of subversion and interference in Cuban internal affairs, and that its priority continues to be to encourage internal counterrevolution and promote destabalizing activities, while it intensifies the embargo and the persecution of Cuban financial and comercial transactions around the world."

When this same thing happened last year, right down to the immediate and angry "we asked you not to" response from Cuba, I concluded it was all essentially a show; Cuba asks the U.S. not to use the occasion of diplomatic talks to visit (and, as they see it, elevate) internal critics, the U.S. delegation went ahead anyway, and Cuba threw a fit on principle.  I still believe that to be the case, but I don't see the Cuban concerns, particularly as expressed this year, as cosmetic.  What they are essentially saying is, 'you Americans come here (and leave here) saying how willing you are to cooperate with us, but out of the other side of your mouth, while you're still standing on Cuban soil, you make only gestures of disrespect, and oh by the way, in just this last year you've been trying to strangle us even harder than before - what gives?' 

It might be a bit of Kabuki theater, but I find myself wondering if the Cuban side has decided to put up with these visits not because they don't really care (what impact do they truly have?) but because that's the price they must pay for continued talks.  While we haven't seen a big agreement signing come out of these talks, they are an important way to raise concerns and build trust.  And with big changes underway in Cuba, and the potential for President Obama to win a second and (presumably) less politically penned-in second term, I doubt either side wants to jeopardize this channel.  Six, eight years ago, talks such as these could so easily be blown up by two very trigger happy sides.

Rubio Sounds Off On Cuba Policy, Migration Talks

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Simminch's photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ch

Oddly enough, freshman GOP Senator (and Tea Party darling) Marco Rubio is counting on Democrat Bob Menendez to hold the line on Cuba policy reforms in the Senate this year.  But, he told two hard-line Miami radio show hosts, he does plan to educate his fellow colleagues from agriculture states about political prisoners in Cuba (afterall, they’re “not communists” – they just don’t know any better).

Rubio disagreed with the Obama administration’s decision to ease restrictions on family travel in 2009 (see here for why), and tells the Miami-based Radio Mambi show that he thinks the administration may be looking to do more.  (H/T to Politico's Ben Smith for posting the interview.) My informal translation follows:

 “It’s important that this community and especially our elected officials, especially those holding federal office, express clearly that our position hasn’t changed and won’t change.  If there’s something that has to change here, it’s in Cuba, there needs to be a change in government there.  And if U.S. policy should change toward Cuba, then it should become even more tough.”

Does that refrain sound hopelessly familiar to anyone?   I’m sure an hour on the internet could turn up numerous such statements from Florida politicians and Bush administration officials in the last decade alone.

Rubio, and anyone following Cuba news last year, knows well that the inter-agency approved new regulations for Cuba travel last summer.  But perhaps he’s worried about any progress this week at the next round of twice-yearly bilateral talks on the 1994-95 migration accords.

Appease Cuba? What Would Winston Churchill Say?

Churchill, Cuba

Several former Castro’s government officials such as Cuba’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, Alcibiades Hidalgo and ex diplomat Juan Antonio Blanco, who worked in the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, have explained how Cuban leaders need enmity with the United States to derive their internal legitimacy and protect their authoritarian privileges. According to these former officials, every time there was a chance of lifting the embargo, Fidel Castro did something to keep it: Angola (1975), Ethiopia (1977), and the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996. 

Those views are an exaggeration of Cuba’s policy towards the United States but I don’t dismiss their evidences. For some in the Cuban leadership, “anti-imperialism”, manifested at its worst as “anti-Americanism”, is central to their identity. Cuban nationalists have a long list of historic complaints and grievances against U.S. interventionism, from the exclusion of the Paris Treaty in 1898 and the Platt Amendment in 1902 to the Helms-Burton Act in 1996.

A New Beginning with Cuba or a Missed Opportunity?


Speaking to Latin American leaders at an OAS summit in Port of Spain in April of 2009, President Obama declared, “the U.S. seeks a new beginning with Cuba.” "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day." His comments followed a White House announcement that the U.S. would lift restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba, fulfilling a campaign promise that Mr. Obama made in an April 2007 op-ed in the Miami Herald. In that article, then-candidate Obama stated that: “the primary means we have of encouraging positive change in Cuba today is to help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime in fundamental ways.” Critics cautioned that Obama would upset Miami Cubans costing him important votes in a crucial electoral State. “Why, in a Tuesday op-ed piece in the Miami Herald, would he challenge the Cuban-American elders and call for dismantling President Bush's hefty restrictions on Cuban-Americans making visits and sending money to relatives in Cuba?” asked Time magazine. In the end, Barack Obama won over 35% of the Cuban-American vote, more than any other Democratic presidential candidate in modern history.

Wynton Marsalis, "60 minutes" and the Case for People-to-People Travel to Cuba

For those who missed it, 60 Minutes aired a segment on last October's visit to Havana by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra earlier this week.  It’s a must-watch for jazz, Marsalis, Cuba and New Orleans enthusiasts alike.  (View the entire 13-minute segment here)  I hope someone in the White House caught this segment because it’s a deeply moving reminder of why promoting broad people-to-people contacts between the U.S. and Cuba is the right, sane and humane policy.

Photo available at: http://havanarisquet.blogspot.com/2010/10/wynton-marsalis-and-jlco-shone-with.htmlPicture this: Wynton Marsalis and members of the Orchestra leading a New Orleans style street parade with Cuban music students and passersby joining in.  Or the joyful grin on one Cuban man, who, with their baby in tow, accompanied his wife – and her horn - to the band’s hotel in hopes of getting a pointer or two from saxophonist Ted Nash (she did, and they jammed together).  And, of course, there’s a magic in seeing Cuban piano legend Chucho Valdes make some music with Marsalis at the home of U.S. Interests Section Chief Jonathan Farrar, which 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer notes was home to the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba – 50 years ago when we still had one.

“Cuba, that’s like your cousins,” New Orleans native Marsalis says.  And you can hear that closeness he’s talking about as he and a colleague mark the distinctive and incredibly similar New Orleans and Cuban clave beats.

When asked, Marsalis declined to offer his opinion on the troubled US-Cuba political relationship.  He figures that’s not what he’s there to do.  Instead, he traveled to Cuba to “bring people together.” 

You can’t blame him for not wanting to enter the hornets’ nest on that one, but maybe he wasn’t evading at all.

A Partially Happy New Year

Retiring President Lula at breakfast with press


Relations between the United States and Latin America have not changed in any meaningful way under President Barack Obama, Brazilian head of state Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said here Monday.

"The truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with sadness," the departing chief executive said during a breakfast with journalists at the presidential palace in Brasilia.

The rumor is circulating that the Administration will finally make an announcement on Tuesday about academic and religious travel and airports from which charter flights can originate.  Tony Martinez has published the story on his blog

If he is correct, it is far less than had been reported in August:

PBS News Hour, WSJ's O'Grady Duke It Out Over Cuba

About two weeks ago, the PBS Newshour aired a three-part series on Cuba: its economic conditions and prospects for changes, its medical care and philosophy, and its medical diplomacy around the world.  I have to admit, I only got around to reading the transcript from the first installment, before the holiday madness took over.

When Mary Anastasia O’Grady, from the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board, blasted the series, calling it a “fairy tale,” I paid little heed.  O’Grady’s polemical attacks on anyone with whom she disagrees are as predictable as they are uninteresting.  But then, I came across this piqued response from  PBS’s Ray Suarez, the correspondent who filed the stories, and decided it was time to watch and read everything I’d missed:

Cuba -- its past, present and future -- sits comfortably in a category, along with abortion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and now global climate change, of difficult stories to tell. No matter what the reporter writes, he or she is going to make somebody mad.

In her op-ed critique of my recent series of reports from Cuba, Mary Anastasia O'Grady writes, "it was hard to recognize the country Mr. Suarez claimed to be describing."

In reality, it was hard to recognize my series of reports from Ms. O'Grady's description.